Former Johnson County High School football coach Harold Arnold relaxing on his front porch. Arnold led the 1958 Longhorns to an undefeated regular season. The Johnson County High School football field carries his name. Submitted photo.
By Tim Chambers
When I first came on board as a sports editor at the Tomahawk, I wrote a story on the 1958 Longhorns. Since then, the 2018 football team went undefeated during the regular season and won a first-round playoff game. I have been asked several times if we could rerun a story about them. The story is special because it’s the last interview I ever did with Coach Harold Arnold before his death.
This week’s roll back the clock features the 1958 Johnson County Longhorns football team.
The year was 1958. The song Jerry Lee Lewis recorded great Balls of Fire, and a fireball of some sort could be found in Johnson County. Harold Arnold was coaching the Longhorns football team, in his sixth year as head football coach. The late Jay Nidiffer, who would later become the assistant basketball coach at ETSU and Auburn, was hired as his assistant coach.
The team returned 13 lettermen from the ‘57 squad that lost only one conference game. Returning were Billy Warden, Dean Maxwell, Jessie Eller, John Paul Phillips, Jerry Cretsinger, Ford Plummer, Jim McCulloch, Ralph Blevins, Kenneth Brookshire, Frazier Cretsinger, Jerry Nave Gail Willis, and Frank Jewett.
Their only loss that year was to Unaka 28-7, but they also had two ties, Happy Valley 0-0 and Boones Creek 6-6. They had spanked Jonesboro, Hampton, and Cloudland by a combined score of 60-0. So there was reason for Arnold to be optimistic. His 1953 squad was involved in a three-way tie for the league title with Unaka and Jonesboro. They knocked off the Rangers 19-14 but fell to the Tigers 14-7.
The ‘58 team wanted no part in sharing the title. And they proved that in their first game. They begin the year with a 26-6 win over Happy Valley. The game was played on a Thursday night at Hampton High School. Maxwell had a pair of touchdown runs, as did Warden. Arnold recalled both of them.
“Billy Warden was a great football player, student, and individual,” said Arnold. He could flat our run. But I had several on the team that was that good and sometimes better. We had a lot of guys who could play.”
One of those was his quarterback Maxwell.
“Dean Maxwell was the best quarterback in the conference,” said Arnold. “He was outstanding in anything he attempted. He was a quiet boy, but he ran the team better than I did. Dean was one of the best ever to play up here.”
They followed that up with a 21-0 victory over Jonesboro. Ford Plummer had a big game on defense, as did Jerry Nave. The 88-year old legendary coach recalled their contributions.
“Ford was a scrappy small boy but tough as a pine knot,” said Arnold. “He was full of energy and played wide open. Jerry (Nave) was just a super athlete. He signed a scholarship down in South Carolina. It was hard to do anything against those guys.”
The test would come the following week against “Goliath.” The Stoney Creek giant had dominated the conference for years. Would the Longhorns prevail like David? Unaka had won six titles under Lynn Goddard, who went on to become head coach at Elizabethton High School. And the Rangers hadn’t lost in a coon’s age.
But with “three” huge stones, Johnson County emerged victorious 13-6. John Paul Phillips hauled in a 45-yard touchdown pass from Maxwell from the first score. Kenneth Brookshire added a four-yard touchdown run set up a 51-yard interception return by Jessie Eller.
“John Paul Phillips was the first of many good athletes out of that family,” said Arnold. “He was quiet but a good student. You never knew he was around until you needed him. He was always willing to do anything to help the team. Anything he did, he gave it 100 percent. He ended up in New York as principal at a big high school and married a lawyer. His brother Doug was one of the best players to ever play for me.”
Arnold had a soft spot when talking about Jessie Eller. The two had remained friends for many years until his recent death.
“Jessie was my fullback, and everything was built around him, added Arnold. “He was one of the best players to ever play in the Watauga Conference. Jessie was a coach’s dream. He worked hard all through life. He could have played college football, but expenses probably kept him from doing that. But you couldn’t find a better man
in Johnson County. I was saddened by his death just a few months
The Longhorns would cruise to wins over Cloudland 33-0 and Boones Creek 33-6. They had very little trouble putting up 36 points against Beaver Creek for their seventh win. But little did they know that this would be their final game.
Damascus refuses to play
Their final game was supposed to be the one that everybody had been waiting for. Close neighbor and rival Damascus High School would cross the state line to invade Mountain City. Only it never
happened. Arnold remembered it well.
“Their coach called the week before we were to play and backed out,” said Arnold. “Damascus always had good teams. We had gone down there several times, and they just wore us out. But their coach wouldn’t come that year because we were undefeated and he knew we were very good. He said, “we’re not coming, coach. We’ve seen you play, and we’re not coming.”
Johnson County was awarded the game 6-0 and finished 8-0.
Warren goes Hog Wild
All one had to do was watch Warren run hog wild in the Cloudland game. He scored on touchdown runs of 65, 55, 70, 25, and one yard. It was his 64-yard run that set up his final score.
“Warden, Maxwell, and Eller were such a good backfield,” stated Arnold. “They all complement one another, and they didn’t care who got it. They all just wanted to win.”
Warden, Maxwell, and Plummer were named to the All Johnson City Press Chronicle team in addition to making All-Conference. Joining them on the All-Conference team were Phillips, Ralph Blevins, and Jerry Nave. Also raking in honors were Eller, George Nevers, and Jerry Cretsinger.
“We had so many good players that it would have been hard to have picked them all,” said Arnold. “They wanted to win that conference championship. That meant more to them than anything.”